Home » Our Blog » I Was in Prison… Part 1

In addition to my parish work, I’ve been doing some prison visits as well.  My fellow Maryknoll-missioner Heidi has been working for the Pastoral Carcerária (prison ministry of the Catholic Church) here for 15 years, focusing mostly with women in prison and human rights.  Through Heidi I got connected with the Pastoral, attended a training, and began visiting three different prisons.
Earlier last year I had visited two women’s prisons with other missioners (once for a mass and once for a health class), but on those occasions I didn’t get a chance to visit the areas where the prisoners live.  When I went to a men’s prison with a team from the Pastoral for the first time,  I was completely taken aback when I entered the cell block.  I had seen the film Carandiru (about the 1992 prison revolt and massacre) and thought that the depictions of overcrowding, freedom with the cells and cell-block, decorations, and hanging laundry were a thing of the past.  I could not have been more profoundly wrong.  As we entered the cell-block, I felt like I was walking into a scene from Carandiru.
We entered a court-yard full of men who were just sitting around, with maybe a few playing soccer.  The courtyard was surrounded by two levels of cells, with towels and laundry hanging everywhere.   The cell we visited had eight bunks, but a prisoner told me that 20 men sleep in that cell at night.  The longer you’re there, the better chance you have of eventually moving up to a mattress.  Another prison I visit is CDP Belém, which is even more crowded.  One unit of the prison was designed for about 750 men, but holds almost 2,000.  The cells there have six bunks, and 30 men sleep in each one. (Check out these photos comparing the size and type of cells in Germany to the ones in Brazil).  At Belém I was very impressed with the soccer goals the men had constructed using string and plastic bottles!
“CDP” indicates “provisional,” meaning the men are there awaiting trial (the majority of men I met were in for drug offenses).  But because of nation-wide overcrowding, even those who have been sentenced can remain in a CDP long after they should.  A major downside to remaining there is that unless they’ve progressed to the point where they’re allowed to work (in the prison or out in the community), there is absolutely nothing for them to do all day.  One group of men showed me the paper swans they were making — simply to occupy their hands and minds, they said.
Each time I’ve visited a prison, it’s been a different experience.  One team I went with provided a charismatic prayer service and then spoke briefly with the prisoners before heading out.  Another team spoke with the prisoners first, took notes on questions they had about their judicial processes, and then offered a simple prayer service for All Souls Day.  Before we left the prison, we visited with the lawyers to follow up on the prisoners’ concerns and questions.  Another day, I was with a Franciscan priest who wanted to learn more about the prison and different ways that he and others could help out.  So we chatted with an administrator (who was great about helping me understand some differences between U.S. prisons/justice system and what we have here in Brazil) and he gave us a tour of the garden maintained by the prisoners in the semi-open unit.
I’ll write more about prison visits in a future post.  For now, it’s been good to get started in this ministry and begin to discover the meaning of Matthew 25:37  “I was in prison, and you visited me.”

Erik Cambier
Erik Cambier served as Maryknoll lay missioner for 25 years, in Tanzania, the United States, Venezuela and El Salvador.